Don't get me wrong — I'm still enjoying the hell out of 12 Monkeys. But last night's episode confirmed what I suspected from the pilot onwards. The time travel on this show is going to follow make-it-up-as-we-go-along rules, without much regard for logic. Typical television time travel, in other words.
The main problem with "The Red Forest" is, it flies in the face of everything we've been told over and over about how time travel is supposed to work in this universe. Cole's constant refrain has been that if he succeeds in stopping the plague outbreak, he'll wink out of existence, Marty McFly-style. Because the Cole who went back in time to stop the plague will never have existed, and Cole will find himself blissfully ignorant in some other timeline. (So Cole did go back in time, but then he created a timeline in which he didn't go back in time. It makes sense, sort of.)
But then in "The Red Forest," Cole manages to create a timeline in which he was killed before he could ever go back in time — and instead of winking out of existence, he's totally fine. He even has memories of his "other" self. If this show was being consistent, Cole should be flickering out of existence the longer he stays in the timeline where he's supposed to be dead. Not to mention, the time machine in this other universe is permanently switched off, but it somehow functions enough to bring Cole back to the alternate future anyway.
It's not enough to ruin the episode for me, by any means — but it does put a stop to any hopes that the time travel, which was already toying with some illogical loops, will actually turn out to hold water.
So what happened? Basically, in this alternate timeline, Dr. Cassandra Railly was killed in 2015 after she was captured by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys fleeing the Night Room. As a result, a couple things changed — first, she didn't leave a message for Cole with her dying breath, giving a hint that Cole was the one time-traveler who could go back and sort out this mess. And second, without her in the picture, the plague starts a year early — in 2015, there's an outbreak in Chechnya, instead of the carefully planned dissemination of the virus we were told about before.
And because Dr. Jones and the other scientists were unaware of Cole's significance, he was killed when he and Ramse came to the compound. Ramse escaped, made his way back to the West 7, and became their eyepatch-wearing badass leader, getting his Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart on.
And meanwhile, Dr. Jones is locked up and forbidden to continue her experiments. She's even crazier than her regular self, and has apparently done some weird bits of self-mutilation, because if you can't be right, be brave. Cole has to convince her that she actually did accomplish real time travel in another timeline, and that's where he's from.
We all know where this is going — Cole has to go back and save Railly from being murdered, and then this other timeline will vanish. And the episode doesn't waste a lot of time toying with us. There's some vague notion that if they turn the time machine back on, it'll wipe out their power and leave the complex without lights or other stuff, and Whitley is opposed to letting them do this. But Brigade Leader Ramse overrules him, and even though he shoots Dr. Jones, they still manage to send Cole back.
Two interesting things come out of all this — first, Cole keeps seeing his surroundings shift from the alternate timeline to the regular timeline, as if he's caught between two different futures:
And secondly, Cole is having weird memories of this alternate timeline, which include a recurring shot of someone shooting a bullet, and a glass of milk falling. Is this a childhood memory that's been jogged by all this alt-universe shenanigans somehow?
So why was the plague released in Chechnya in 2015? We don't know yet, but it has something to do with Operation Troy. And there's also a hint that this guy is in Chechnya:
That's Adam Wexler, "Digital Terrorist," who is basically this universe's version of Edward Snowden. Except that he's a fan of cheesy metaphors, like saying that the government's secrets are a big box, and he has a hammer. Because it's hammer time.
Anyway, the rest of the episode is basically taken up with Cole rescuing Cassandra Railly, and then a bit of the fall-out. And in order to rescue Cassandra, Cole has to team up with her skeptical ex-boyfriend Aaron, which basically means we get the best Nikita reunion yet. Cole abducts Aaron, in a replay of the way he abducted Cassandra back in the day, and then takes Aaron to Cassandra's secret bookshop lair.
And the two guys team up for a kind of buddy-comedy, good-cop-crazy-cop deal, which is just as bizarre and entertaining as we could have hoped.
Aaron doesn't believe Cole about Cassandra's situation, until Cole mentions Operation Troy — and then it's too late because Aaron has already secretly called the cops. They have to scram and go on a covert mission to save Cassandra. Because as Cole explains, quoting Ramse, everybody has two wolves inside, and they're both starving — one wolf is selfishness and the other is trust and compassion. The wolf that wins is the one you feed, and Cassandra feeds the good wolf inside people.
In order to get his good wolf fed, Aaron has to watch Cole kill and torture a bunch of rent-a-thugs, as they track the truck that Cassandra was imprisoned in to a greenhouse, and then finally get to the facility where she's being held.
Meanwhile, Cassandra is given some of the same strange hallucinogenic brew that Jennifer Goines was treated to, but she also gets a weird induction/speech from someone who's apparently called the Striking Woman. The speech is all about the red forest and the tall grass, and a house made of cedar and pine, and a man who meets Cassandra there. Apparently you need to be in an altered state to meet the Witness, the guru/leader of the Twelve Monkeys, who wears a kind of plague-doctor mask. Or maybe they just want her in an altered state so she'll be open to the Witness' notions.
In any case, Cassandra escapes before they can finish reprogramming her. And this is the part where she'd be killed if Cole and Aaron hadn't shown up — the thugs are ordered to do whatever it takes to keep her from getting away, and they seem pretty trigger happy.
In the ensuing crossfire, the Pallid Man is shot (possibly fatally?) — and Aaron becomes the latest person to witness Cole flashing out of existence.
In the end, the timeline is reset, but our heroes are left with a bunch of new questions. Like, what's going down in Chechnya, and what is Operation Troy — and how does this relate to the fact that the lethal virus is apparently still around even after they destroyed the Night Room? Also, they found a picture of some ancient pottery while they were searching for Cassandra, and it seems significant.
In a really nice moment of vindication, Aaron apologizes to Cassandra for not believing her sooner and for leaving her alone with "all of this." But now, going forward, Aaron looks like he's going to be firmly part of the team. It's a touching scene, and sort of an interesting juxtaposition with the similarly nice vindication in Agent Carter earlier in the week — a slightly different situation where a hero was overlooked and disbelieved, and finally she's being taken seriously.
And in the end, Ramse jokes about his no-longer-missing eye, and then Dr. Jones confirms what we all guessed already: all this time-hopping is taking a toll, and Cole can't keep doing it much longer. He only has a few precious "jumps" left, and then he'll probably die. "You and I are breaking the unwritten rules of the universe. But time is going to take what it's owed," says Dr. Jones.
I just wish those unwritten rules of the universe, and particularly the rules of time travel, were a bit more consistent.